Leaving an Old Identity Behind

What else is left to us but to drown the past to save the future?
— Hassan, an Egyptian construction supervisor on the Abu Simbel project*

In the 1960’s the two temples built by King Ramses II during the 12th century BC at Abu Simbel had to be moved out of reach of the rising waters of Lake Nasser. The temples were carefully deconstructed, moving the most important and most precious parts of the temples to higher ground, and then flooding the rest of the site. And so it is with our own identities. There are parts of us, that should come with us in to the future. And there are parts we must leave behind.

I have been thinking a lot this week about identities. Partly because a young friend of mine is having a hard time and part of her struggle, as it often is, is about leaving an old identity behind. And the reason I could see her struggle so clearly is because I too am in the same place: struggling to leave an old identity behind.  Even identities that have helped us, or maybe even especially the identities that have helped us: my identity as a ‘survivor’, or my identity as a ‘fighter’, or my identity as the ‘good girl.’ These identities helped us get here, but often they hold us back from getting to where we want or need to go. They stop us from our continued growth.

Sometimes the identity was created in reaction to trauma or to struggle or loss. Or sometimes it’s just the identity that went with the time of life. Parenting is a great example of this. Your identity shifts when you become a parent, and then as a parent you are asked to shift identity all the way along the process: the identity of a parent of a toddler isn’t the same as the identity of a parent of a ten year old, or seventeen year old, much less the parent of an adult. Sometimes a new circumstance or role catapults us in to a new identity: manager, widow, retiree. We are aware of aspects of ourselves because of what others expect from us, or what we have expected from people in a similar role.

It seems simple when you see it. Of course I need to grow in to that new thing, that new aspect of myself. And even if I want the new skills, the new experiences that this identity is allowing me it can be hard to make the shift, let alone in those times when we didn’t choose the moment of growth.  The old identity is such a security blanket. In my better moments I feel strong enough to walk away from it. But when any darkness comes in, any stress, any fear, I instinctively reach for the familiar, for what feels comfortable, even if it really no longer fits. I seek to lean on the self I know, rather than the self I am getting to know.

It’s so hard to let go of that part of us that helped us survive. And it seems that no matter how many times I learn this lesson, and no matter in how many ways, the learning feels brand new every time I have to learn it again.

We talk a lot about the fact that growth requires learning new things, but we don’t talk as much about how growth also requires us to let go of old things. And how hard this process is, and how many iterations it takes. We see it in kids: how they can march forward into a new developmental stage and then slide back in rough moments. But they don’t yet have a concept of themselves in the same way adults do, so they are constantly and excitedly reaching forward. There are a few kids who can feel the loss of their growth—kids who realize that learning to read themselves might mean less time sitting on their parent’s lap being read to. But most don’t. Most forge ahead.

But adolescence and adulthood are different. We begin to really understand that a move forward is a loss of some kind. We can’t always express it. Or name it. But we can often feel it—and it can feel out of place. And it can make us feel out of sorts with out a way to say where we are.

The me-that-I-was needs to give way to the-me-I-am-becoming. This is the trajectory of growth. This is true of very young children and it remains true for all of us until our last breath. But it requires stronger and stronger muscles as we get older. Growth, I am learning, doesn’t get easier with age—in fact it may be the opposite. When we are older we have more invested in the people we believe we are. Children have a particular identity for a couple of years, we have that particular identity often for a decade at least. Its not that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. It just turns out that it takes an enormous amount of strength and patience and compassion to let go of the old tricks.  

And why is it so hard? Well there are a few reasons, but one of the biggest is some fear of living in this in-between space, no man’s land, the land of the lost. This place is hard because it isn’t familiar. You don’t know the rules. It feels awkward. It feels messy. But most of all, we anticipate this space as lonely. We imagine exile.

Our identities don’t exist in isolation. We are not so much individual selves as we are, as Jean Baker Miller described it: Selves-in-relation. We believe who are are is connected to how people connect to us, and we fear that if we change we will lose people. They like me because of who I was, and they will never like who I am becoming. And honestly, there is some truth to this fear. When we grow and change, people do have to get used to our new selves and our new views, as we do when they change and grow.

But the biggest support to this trajectory of growth from me-that-I-was to the-me-I-am-becoming is the ability to be held, witnessed and supported in the place in between them. Not only is growth not about isolation, growth requires relationship. We are designed to grow in relationship. It was a a multi-country, multi-agency partnership that worked together to take the temples of Abu Simbel apart block by block with precision and care. It took years as the temple was neither rooted in its past location, nor safe in its new one. Growth requires us to be in a space that is neither here nor there—it a space where you often don’t know—where you need the conversation—where you need to contradict yourself, in order to find out what you do know, what you need to learn. You need to be able to held both parts of yourself at once, and in order to do that, someone needs to hold you. It is one of the most important jobs of a parent, or a therapist, or spouse or friend, this work of being with someone in the space between. When you have let go of one shore and are not quite at the other.  So change is not just about moving forward, it is also about what you need to leave behind. What parts of your temple do you want to move to higher ground? What parts of your temple do you no longer need and need to let go of? 

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

*Gerster, G. (1963). Threatened treasures of the Nile. National Geographic 124 (4), 587-623.

Women's Growth In Connection: Writings from the Stone Center
By Judith V. Jordan PhD, Alexandra G. Kaplan, Irene P. Stiver, Janet L. Surrey PhD, Jean Baker Miller